Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Roman owl fibula found on Danish island

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Last summer, archaeologists excavating an Iron Age settlement on the Baltic island of Bornholm, Denmark, unearthed a rare enameled brooch in the shape of an owl. The excavation of the Lavegaard settlement on the outskirts of the town of Nexø was carried out in advance of construction of a daycare center. The archaeological team from Bornholms Museum has found large quantities of pottery, the remains of workshop ovens, hearths, clay and daub construction, traces of iron smelting and ceramics firing and more than 1,300 postholes. The owl pin was found by metal detectorists working with the archaeologists a few meters from an ancient home in the Roman Iron Age layer. Its design and composition date it to the middle of the 1st century through the end of the 3rd century A.D.

The owl’s most prominent features are its huge round eyes with bright orange irises around a black pupil. Its body has a wing decoration filled with green enamel inset with five circles, each containing concentric rings of red, yellow and black. The bird’s tail feathers are marked with semi-circular indentations and its neck is encircled by a rope design. All the colors are made of enamel.

The artifact is a plate or disk fibula, a pin used to fasten garments made from a flat disk that could be shaped into a variety of designs, including zoomorphic ones. It was made of bronze and decorated with multi-colored enamel accents. The enamel in the piece was created by applying various colors of powdered glass onto the glass rods you see in millefiori designs (that’s how those concentric circles in the eyes and on the body were made) and then firing the brooch until the powder fused into enamel. The technique used to make the owl so colorful is known as pit enamel because the surface of the enamel becomes uneven upon subsequent firings done to harden the enamel.

Roman enamel came in a variety of colors — orange, red, azure, dark blue, green, yellow, white, black — but it rarely survives in brilliant condition. Many enameled fibulae found today have seen their colors fade or change into a yellowish brown. The owl’s colors are still diverse and bright because it was preserved by archaeological layers topped by a thick clay sealing layer. Also, the area was not ploughed anytime in the recent past which saved the little owl from being churned up and potentially damaged by heavy equipment.

While enameled fibulae do not appear to have been very popular north of the Germanic border — Scandinavia had excellent artisans of its own, particularly metalworkers, and the fashion was to leave metal jewelry as is rather than putting lots of color on it — more of them have been found on the island of Bornholm than anywhere else in Scandinavia, about a dozen of them so far. This is the only owl fibula known to have been found in Scandinavia. They’re rare anyway, and the few that have been found were unearthed in German frontier forts or closer to the heart of the empire in what are today Belgium, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland.

Somebody must have loved this colorful owl, perhaps appreciating its rare design or symbolic significance, enough to take it home. Archaeologists believe it was likely to have been brought to Bornholm by a mercenary returning from a stint in the Roman army rather than openly traded.

Owls have a keen sense of night vision, enabling these highly skilled silent hunters to catch their prey unawares. This notion of owls as intelligent and wise animals is one that has endured throughout the ages as famous companions to both Athena, the Greek Goddess of war, and later to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, art, trade, and war.

In fact, Minerva was often depicted with an owl on her shoulder as a symbol of wisdom, making it a highly desirable animal for a Roman soldier.

We do not know if the Germanic perception of the owl was the same as the Romans, but many of them would have been mercenaries in the Roman territories and developed a deep insight into the Roman mentality and culture. It is likely that they also adopted Roman traditions of symbolic jewellery.

The brooch must have been something quite special at the time, both because of its unusual shape and bright colours. It must have given the wearer a great level of prestige.

In Danish the word for owl fibula is uglefiblen which is, I think we can all agree, extremely adorable. The uglefiblen is now on display at the National Museum of Denmark along with other treasures discovered in 2014.

Share

Sabre is oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Researches doing a routine examination of a sabre in the collection of the Yaroslavl Museum in the Russian city of Yaroslavl 160 miles northeast of Moscow have discovered that the blade is the oldest crucible steel weapon ever found in Eastern Europe. The bent and broken sabre was unearthed in 2007 in the shadow of the Dormition Cathedral in the historic center of Yaroslavl. Originally built in 1215, the cathedral suffered a great deal of damage during the Russian Revolution and was demolished by the Soviets in 1937. It was reconstructed starting in 2004 and completed in time to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the city in 2010.

Dr. Asya Engovatova from the RAS Institute of Archaeology led an archaeological excavation of the area which in 2007 found a mass grave of defenders and civilians killed when Mongol invaders under Batu Khan sacked and burned Yaroslavl in 1238. The grave held the skeletal remains of men, women, children, common household goods and jewelry. The sabre, missing its hilt and fittings, was one of several weapons found in the mass grave. Swords from the 12th and 13th centuries are very rare finds in Russia, and most of the ones that have been unearthed were discovered in warrior graves in southern Russia. Finding one in the archaeological layers of a city is even greater a rarity.

In March of this year, the Yaroslavl Sabre underwent metallographic analysis at the RAS Institute of Archaeology to find out more about its composition and internal structure. The blade was examined under a scanning electron microscope and using X-ray microphotography.

The metallographic methods used in the analysis revealed that the sword was made from crucible steel. The technology used to produce steel of this kind was first perfected in India, in the 1[st century] A.D. Artifacts crafted from such steel later begin to turn up in Central Asia. European sword makers appear to have known nothing of this technology. The techniques for making crucible steel were later lost and European steel makers reinvented it only at the end of the 18th century.

In the Middle Ages and thereafter, crucible steel was very expensive. It produces bladed weapons more exactly than any other material, conferring a combination of great strength and the ability to maintain sharpness throughout the length of the blade.

The only native metal available for swords in early medieval Europe was bloomery iron which was made by heating iron ore and charcoal in a furnace. This created an end-product replete with slag inclusions and only occasionally absorbed enough carbon to form steel. Crucible steel was made by placing pieces of iron and charcoal in a crucible and heating it until they combined to form a steel ingot. The ingots were then forged into hard, sharp blades at low temperatures.

According to ancient weapons expert Alan Williams, the only European swords forged at least in part from crucible steel known from this period were made in Germany between the 8th and 9th centuries and inscribed “ULFBERHT” (or variants thereof) on the blade. About 100 ULFBERHT swords have been found, mainly in Scandinavia and along the Baltic coast. Only a handful of them have the high-steel content indicating Central Asian crucible steel may have been used in their forging, but the ULFBERHT smiths didn’t have the know-how to forge this material to its ideal strength.

The Yaroslavl Sabre, on the other hand, is made entirely of crucible steel by highly skilled smiths. It was likely made in one of the Central Asian steel production centers that had been conquered by the Mongols before they invaded Russia. It was almost certainly a Mongol weapon, and must have belonged to a very wealthy, high-ranking Mongol warrior. That might explain its ignominious fate. Analysis of the blade revealed micro-cracks with metal in them cause by long exposure to burning. It seems the blade was deliberately heated to a high temperature so it could be bent and then was thrown into the mass grave.

Bending the enemy’s expensive and lethal sword may have had a ritual purpose to it, although any hope that it might curse away the Mongol conquest would prove futile. Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and the ruler of the Golden Horde, the northwest section of the Mongol Empire, and his 35,000 mounted cavalry cut a deadly swath through the splintered Kievan Rus in the last month of 1237 and early months of 1238, razing almost every major city including Moscow, Vladimir, Rostov and Kiev. Only Novgorod and Pskov would be spared destruction.

The last organized resistance to the invasion was at the Battle of the Siti River on March 4th, 1238. The Russian forces were led by Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir, who had survived the levelling of his capital to raise an army. Fighting by his side were three of his nephews, one of whom was Prince Vsyevolod Konstantinovich, the first independent ruler of the Principality of Yaroslavl. The Russians were annhilated. Yuri and two of his nephews were killed on the battlefield. The third, Vasilko, Prince of Rostov, was taken prisoner and only lived long enough to call Mongol general Subutai “a dark kingdom of vileness” before Subutai had his throat slit. After that, all Russian states submitted to Mongol rule ushering in two centuries of Mongol domination of modern-day-Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Share

Conserving a boat made of cloves

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

British Museum organics conservator Verena Kotonski was tasked with a unique assignment last November: conserving a model boat made of cloves. The museum doesn’t know much about the boat’s history. They think it was made in Indonesia anywhere from 18th to the early 20th century, probably in the middle of that range. It entered the collection in 1972 but there are no records nothing how it made its way to the museum, who made it where and when, whether it was donated, purchased, etc. It’s such a rare and intriguing piece that despite the many questions attending its history the clove boat is the cover model for the British Museum’s Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange exhibition which is on now and runs through May 31st.

The boat is slim and long with a central canopy and a raised openwork prow and stern. Rowers with long paddles stand on both sides, back and front, and the canopy is topped with a pennant. A drawing of the boat made when it first arrived at the British Museum indicate there was a second pennant at one point as well. The boat is made of dried cloves strung together on threads or threaded together with thin wooden pins. The hull is formed of layered strands of cloves tied together. Charmingly, even after at least a century and probably two it still smells like cloves. The conservator said as soon as she opened the crate she was overwhelmed by the scent of cloves.

The artifact has never been on display before because of its condition issues. Already in the 1970s there were detached pieces kept in a box with it, and by the time Kotonski received it there were 14 detached elements, plus evidence on the boat that there were more pieces missing. It was also veritably caked in dust which she had to clean painstakingly with a brush, a vacuum to suction off the dust and conservation-grade rubber to extract the more deeply embedded particles.

Once the boat was clean, the damaged areas needed to be fixed and detached pieces reattached. The thorniest issue was puzzling out where everything should go. Out of the 14 detached pieces — five torsos, one standing figure, two pairs of arms and paddles (these were made as one piece and then attached to torsos), one long paddle (possibly a rudder), one pennant without its pole, three round objects of indeterminate nature — the standing figure, two of the torsos and their matching arms and paddles could be immediately identified as fitting vacant spots on the boat.

Having reinstated the standing figure and two rowers, I was still left with three torsos and two drum shaped elements as well as the pennant. Although the Museum’s records, which include a rather vague historic drawing, hinted at the possibility that some figures could have been on top of the cabin including a second pennant, the exact location of figures and pennant remained difficult to establish.

A similar boat in the Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection helped fill in some of the blanks. It has three figures on the roof of the canopy with round objects, most likely drums, in front of them. Kotonski examined the round objects under a microscope and was able to match the break edges of one of them to one of the torsos. It still wasn’t clear where the drummers and their drums were placed atop of the canopy. There are multiple holes allowing for any number of arrangements. The conservation team debated whether they should even reinstall the drummers without being certain about the original placement.

We decided in favour of installing the figures on the roof. We felt that the figures (drummers) are a key part of the object and therefore vital for the interpretation of this artefact. Furthermore, it is possible to install the figures securely without using any adhesive which means they can easily be removed and repositioned if further evidence on their original position should emerge. Knowing that the figures on the roof were meant to depict drummers certainly helped to find a sensible arrangement of the figures on the roof.

They made the opposite decision when it came to the long paddle, the pennant and one drum with an attached pole. In order to reattach these pieces to the model, they would have had to reconstruct significant missing parts. Since they couldn’t know their original positions nor what the lost parts looked like, the reconstruction and reattachment would have entailed more guesswork than they were comfortable with. The pieces were returned to the boat’s storage box.

They did reconstruct one piece: a teeny tiny little retaining collar that was important for the boat’s stability. These collars fit on top of posts on each corner of the canopy, keeping the roof from gradually inching upwards and coming off its poles. The replacement collar was made of Japanese tissue paper, one of the modern conservator’s best friends, to distinguish it from its clove-wrought brethren.

Because conservators are magical (and because the model is small), the entire process took just 34 hours. The boat is now on display, but conservation isn’t over yet. Verena Kotonski would like anyone with any information that might help them suss out the original positions of the detached pieces to email the team at conservation@britishmuseum.org.

Share

Family looking for broken sewer pipe finds 2,500 years of history

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

A family in Lecce, an ancient city on the tip of Italy’s boot heel, found a veritable historical complex under their feet when they began digging to find a faulty sewer pipe in 2000. Luciano Faggiano family had acquired the building at Via Ascanio Grandi 56 planning to use the first floor as a trattoria and live with his wife and youngest son upstairs. It was a historical property — part of the convent of Santa Maria delle Curti which was closed in the 17th century and the remains of whose cells are still visible in the first floor walls — but renovated with all modern conveniences. When one of those conveniences, the toilet, kept backing up, Faggiano enlisted his two older sons who no longer live at home to spend a week helping him dig underneath the house to find the broken sewer pipe causing the problem.

But one week quickly passed, as father and sons discovered a false floor that led down to another floor of medieval stone, which led to a tomb of the Messapians, who lived in the region centuries before the birth of Jesus. Soon, the family discovered a chamber used to store grain by the ancient Romans, and the basement of a Franciscan convent where nuns had once prepared the bodies of the dead.

Faggiano kept digging, removing the spoil in the trunk of his car, even tying a rope around the chest of his 12-year-old son to lower him into passages that were too small for the adults. Mrs. Faggiano was not informed of this. Eventually the neighbors got suspicious and called the cops. Since unapproved archaeological excavations are illegal, even when the original aim was sewer maintenance, the authorities blocked the dig for a year until making a deal with the Faggianos that they could continue under the supervision of archaeologists from the local Superintendence of Archaeological Goods and architects Franco and Maria Antonietta De Paolis.

All of this was done on the Faggianos’ dime and with their labor. The city just watched, ever more excitedly, as the Faggiano family’s excavations revealed the tomb of a Roman infant, other tombs and ossuaries, a deep pit that served as a charnel house where bodies were left to decompose before the bones were recovered and interred, water catchment cisterns, circular postholes cut into rock for Mesappian dwellings, grain silos, an ancient street, a well 10 meters (33 feet) deep that is still fed by the waters of the Idume, an underground river seven kilometers (4.3 miles) long that traverses the city of Lecce before emptying into the Adriatic, tunnels that may have been used by the religious orders — Templars, the Santa Maria convent and Franciscans have all inhabited the place at different times since the Middle Ages — to move around the city without being seen, a Messapian-era pavement (ca. 5th century B.C.), frescoed walls, ancient vases, an early episcopal ring, ceramics from the 1600s, an ancient altar among many other treasures.

More than 4,000 artifacts have been unearthed during the decade-plus of digging. They did find the sewer pipe after a few years, by the way, and it was broken. By then, of course, the trattoria idea was back-burnered and Luciano Faggiano rented one of the floors in the building to help fund this voyage of exploration through the layers of Lecce’s history. He’s still planning to open a trattoria, but in a new building. This one is now the Museum Faggiano where people can go down into the bowels of the structure to see the ancient history for themselves.

The museum’s website has a photo gallery which has sad little low res pictures, but the virtual tour is very satisfying as long as you click on the “View on Google Maps” link in the upper left corner which opens a lovely full screen navigation window with thumbnails to guide you through the highlights.

Share

Objects from royal yacht shipwreck back in Hawaii

Friday, April 10th, 2015

After years of conservation to preserve organic remains, artifacts from the wreck of the 19th century Hawaiian royal yacht the Ha’aheo o Hawai’i have returned to Hawaii. They will become part of the permanent collection of the Kaua’i Museum where they will go on display close to where they spent almost two centuries under the turquoise ocean.

The yacht started out its life in far less congenial waters. Captain George Crowninshield, scion of the prominent Boston Brahmin seafaring family, commissioned Salem’s greatest shipwright Retire Becket to build him the first ocean-going pleasure yacht in the country. Crowninshield was involved in every aspect of construction and he spared no expense. The ship cost $50,000 to build, plus another $50,000 was spent on the furniture and finishes like flamed mahogany and birds-eye maple paneling, custom furniture by Boston’s premier cabinetmaker Thomas Seymour, silk velvet upholstery with gold lace trim, ormulu chandeliers, bespoke sets of silver, porcelain, glass and linens. It even had indoor plumbing. Cleopatra’s Barge, an 83-foot brigantine, was launched on October 21st, 1816. Inclement winter prevented her from sailing right away and the vessel was instantly famous so when the ship was frozen at the dock after a short trial run in December, it was opened up to visitors. Thousands came to see it.

When the ice thawed in late March of 1817, George took Cleopatra’s Barge on a long, leisurely Mediterranean cruise. Everywhere he stopped, Crowninshield was greeted by thousands of admirers wanting to get a glimpse of his luxurious ship. One day in Barcelona the yacht had 8,000 visitors. He was also watched by less friendly people: the British and French navies, who put men-of-war on his tail because they had heard the widespread rumor that Captain George was secretly planning on rescuing Napoleon from St. Helena and bringing the ex-emperor home with him to America. Whether this was truly his cockamamie scheme or not, his actions could certainly be seen in a suspicious light. He got 300 letters of introduction to important people on the continent, stopped at Elba where he met Napoleon’s aides who gave him more letters of introduction to the Bonaparte family, visited with the family in Rome — Napoleon’s sister Paulina Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, gave Crowninshield a snuff-box, her sister Princess Murat, Queen of Naples, gave him a ring, Napoleon’s mother gave him a Sevres chocolate mug and her son’s boots — but ultimately went home without an exiled former emperor on board.

Crowninshield and Cleopatra’s Barge returned to Salem on October 3rd, 1817. George stayed on board making an extremely fancy houseboat out of his yacht. He got less than two months’ use of it, sadly, as he died of a heart attack on board on November 26th, 1817. He was 51 years old. His family stripped the elegant furnishings and used it as a trade vessel for a few years before selling it to another mercantile concern. In November of 1820, Cleopatra’s Barge was sold again, this time to King Kamehameha II (aka “Liholiho”) of Hawaii. The King paid 8,000 piculs (1,064,000 pounds) of sandalwood, an estimated value of $80,000, for the ship and thus Cleopatra’s Barge became the first and only royal yacht in any part of what would become the United States.

Kamehameha II loved his new toy. He outfitted it in additional finery and cannon for ceremonial shots and traveled the islands with it. The honeymoon period was short-lived, however, as by April 1822 it became clear that so much of the wood was rotting the ship would have to be dry-docked and extensively repaired. Fresh lumber had to be secured from the Pacific Northwest so it was more than a year before the yacht was seaworthy again. The king renamed her Ha’aheo o Hawai’i (Pride of Hawaii) and the rebuilt ship was relaunched on May 10th, 1823.

Again his enjoyment of the yacht would be short-lived. King Kamehameha II decided to go to London to meet King George IV. Instead of taking the Ha’aheo o Hawai’i, however, he was persuaded to book passage on the whaler L’Aigle because its crew, led by one Captain Valentine Starbuck (no word on his relation to the Battlestar Galactica pilot), was familiar with the route. The king, his wife Queen Kamāmalu and other Hawaiian notables, left for England in November of 1823. After a stop in Brazil, they arrived in Portsmouth on May 17th, 1824, and then hung around for a few weeks waiting for King George to fix a date for the audience. They were finally scheduled to meet on June 21st, but they had to postpone it when the Hawaiian royals were struck with measles. On July 8th, 1824, Queen Kamāmalu died. King Kamehameha II died six days later. Their bodies returned to Hawaii almost a year later, on May 6th, 1825.

His beloved royal yacht would precede King Kamehameha II to the grave. It ran aground on a reef in Hanalei Bay on the north coast of the island of Kauai. It’s unclear what the ship was doing in such a remote location. The Christian missionaries the king had often given rides to on his ship said it was persistent drunkenness of the crew that led to the Ha’aheo o Hawai’i‘s wreck. An attempt was made to rescue the vessel which was still above the waterline, but it failed, snapping the main mast, and when the news reached the islands that the king was dying, whatever parts of it could be salvaged were and then the ship was abandoned to the surf.

The surf did its job well and the wreck of the opulent royal yacht remained unexplored for more than 170 years. In 1994, Paul Forsythe Johnston, Curator of Maritime History at the Smithsonian Institutions’ National Museum of American History and formerly the curator of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem which has a long history with the yacht from her Cleopatra’s Barge days, applied for and was granted Hawaii’s first underwater archaeological permit to search for the Ha’aheo o Hawai’i. The next year, diver, historian and shipwreck hunter Richard Rogers volunteered his own vessel to help in the search. This video follows the team in the first few weeks of the search:

Hanalei Bay Shipwreck from John Yasunaga on Vimeo.

For four weeks each year between 1995 and 2001, the search party looked for the wreck. At first they only found debris, but a couple of seasons in they finally discovered the wreck under 10 feet of water and 10 feet of sand, documented it thoroughly and recovered some of its artifacts.

All told, more than 1,000 artifacts were retrieved.

“We found gold, silver, Hawaiian poi pounders, gemstones, a boat whistle, knives, forks, mica, things from all over the world, high- and low-end European stuff. Every bit of it is royal treasure,” Rogers said. [...] His favorite discovery was a trumpet shell.

“I found it under a bunch of sand and carried it onto the deck. This was in 1999. I blew it and it made the most beautiful sound going out over Hanalei Bay,” Rogers recalled. “I thought about how it hadn’t been blown in over 170 years.”

The principal value of the artifacts is historical, said Paul F. Johnston, Ph.D., Curator of Maritime History at the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution. They represent the only known objects from the short but intense reign of Kamehameha II, the man who abolished the Hawaiian kapu (taboo) socio-cultural system and allowed Christian missionaries into the kingdom.

“He only reigned from 1819 -1824, but Old Hawaii changed forever and irrevocably from the changes he put into place during that short period. He was an important member of our nation’s only authentic royalty,” Johnston said.

The Smithsonian has held the artifacts since their discovery for conservation and study, but they belong to the state of Hawaii. The museum has received four crates of objects recovered from the wreck and is expecting another two. Once everything is in place, curators will open the boxes and start unpacking their royal treasure for display.

Share

Visually imparied touch the art of the Prado

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

In 2012 I blogged about the Penn Museum’s pilot program of Touch Tours to give blind and visually impaired visitors the opportunity to explore select ancient artifacts by touch. It was an immense success and the next year was expanded to include even cooler elements like raised line diagrams, visually impaired assistant docents and the opportunity to smell mummification oils. Touch Tours are now an annual event at the Penn Museum.

One of the reasons this was possible, despite the almost universal strictures against touching exhibits in museums worldwide, is that Penn Museum focused on stone artifacts with all kinds of textural and relief features from their ancient Egyptian collection. Visitors still had to meticulously clean their hands with sanitizer wipes before being allowed to explore the pieces, but granite and limestone and basalt can take a lot of touching without being damaged and their three-dimensional designs give the non-sighted rich details to explore. Paint, on the other hand, is highly susceptible to damage from our grubby paws, and paintings are two-dimensional. Even if visitors were allowed to put their oily, sweaty and oozy mitts on the art, touch can’t convey much of the painted image (unless it’s a Jackson Pollock).

The Prado has overcome those challenges with a brilliant idea: relief reproductions of select artworks. The project began a year ago when the museum commissioned the innovative Basque graphics company Estudios Durero to create relief images that would allow blind and low-vision visitors to explore paintings from the Prado’s collection with their hands. Because many visually impaired people can still see color but standard 3D printing hasn’t yet gotten to the point of being able to recreate accurately the vast range of colors in a painting, Estudios Durero used a proprietary technique they’ve developed called Didú which uses a high resolution image of the work printed in special ink as the base. The areas that need to be in relief are marked and a chemical is added to them which makes the ink develop volume and texture up to six millimeters deep. The image of the painting with accurate colors is then printed onto that base.

Museum curators worked with the Estudios Durero team to pick the paintings best suited to this kind of exploration. Extremely detailed pieces would be too hard to follow, and the scale of the paintings had to be manageable both for the printing process and for the visitors to be able to reach every part of them. Blind and low-sighted consultants were enlisted to help the team figure out which parts of the painting should be highlighted in relief. The eyes, it turned out, worked better as concave elements rather than convex because the holes provided a reference point for the visually impaired to orient themselves as they explored the artwork.

Six works were chosen for this exhibition: Noli me tangere (ca. 1525) by Correggio, Vulcan’s Forge (1630) by Velázquez, The Parasol (1777) by Goya, Mona Lisa (1503-1519) from the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest (ca. 1580) by El Greco and Still life with Artichokes, Flowers and Glass Vessels (1627) by Juan van der Hamen. That copy of the Mona Lisa, by the way, is the one which was painted contemporaneously with the original and has details that on the original are obscured by thick, darkened varnish. In addition to the paintings, the exhibition features new explanatory materials created specifically to convey information to the non and low-sighted on braille panels next to the works and in audio tours. The museum also provides opaque glasses for sighted visitors to experience the paintings by touch the way the visually impaired do.

Touching the Prado opened January 19th and runs through June 28th. The exhibition has been a smashing success so far and it’s only in its infancy. The museum is planning on expanding the exhibition with additional paintings. Estudios Durero is working on finding new ways to convey the sensory experience of skin, hair, textiles, metal, glass, all kinds of materials represented in the paintings. Other museums have contacted them about setting up similar programs, so this could small project could have far-reaching consequences in making the visual arts accessible to those who have been all but cut off from them.

Share

Rare Earl of Lancaster devotional panel found on Thames riverbank

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have unearthed a rare 14th century devotional panel dedicated to the death of rebel-turned-martyr Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. The team was excavating the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge in advance of construction in 2000 when they found the rare piece in a medieval land reclamation dump. The waterlogged soil of the Thames riverbank is an outstanding preserver of artifacts, and this lead alloy panel with its delicate openwork has survived in excellent condition along with organic artifacts like timber revetments from the Roman period and the Middle Ages, the remains of plants used for cloth dyeing and a medieval leather knife sheath.

The panel was originally a mass-produced object sold at a pilgrimage site dedicated to the earl. People bought them as devotional objects, often for use in small home shrines. Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, would not at first glance seem to be the ideal subject for religious reverence. A holy man he was not. What he was was a powerful baron, the holder of no fewer than five major earldoms (Lancaster, Lincoln, Salisbury, Leicester, Derby) that made him the second wealthiest man in England after the king, the paternal grandson King Henry III of England and a thorn in the side of the unpopular King Edward II, his cousin.

At first Thomas supported Edward, but the bloom was soon off the rose, in large part thanks to Edward’s lavishing of titles, monies and power on his low-born favorite Piers Gaveston. By 1311, three years after he’d carried Curtana, the sword of St. Edward the Confessor, at his cousin’s coronation, Thomas was the leader of the Ordainers, a group of barons, earls and bishops demanding, among other things, that Gaveston be exiled. When Gaveston returned less than two months after this his third exile and Edward gave him all his lands and titles back, the Ordainers went to war. He was captured, tried and beheaded. Lancaster was one of the judges and Gaveston was executed on his property.

From then on it was one fight after the other between the royal cousins. For a while Lancaster had the upper hand in a big way, becoming the de facto king after Edward’s army was defeated by the forces of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but in 1318 he was ousted and the two Hugh Despensers, father and son, took over as power behind the throne and Edward’s favorite. Lancaster marshalled his private army, struck up a deal with Robert the Bruce and rebelled against the crown.

On March 16th, 1322, Lancaster and the King’s allies went head to head at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Lancaster lost. He was taken prisoner and tried for treason in a sham court (the judges included both Despensers and the King) in his own castle at Pontefract where he was not allowed to speak in his own defense. He was convicted, of course, and on March 23rd, he was executed by beheading (Edward had commuted the traditional sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering on account of Lancaster’s royal blood).

Within weeks after Lancaster’s execution, shrines dedicated to him began to crop up, at the site of his execution at Pontefract Castle, his tomb in Pontefract Priory and at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Rumors of miracles at the priory tomb and execution site abounded and soon Thomas was venerated as a popular saint. He was so popular Edward II put an armed guard around the priory to keep the crowds away. In response money was raised from all over England to build a chantry chapel on the site of his execution.

His saintliness rested not in his personal piety or holy behavior (there certainly wasn’t much of the latter), but in his rebellion against a despised king. This was a thing in Medieval England: make saints out of fallen political/military heroes. Simon de Montfort received similar devotions after his death in 1265. What better way for Edward III to distance himself from his father after Edward II’s murder than to side with the cult of St. Thomas of Lancaster? In 1327 petitioned Pope John XXII that Thomas be canonized as an official saint of the Church, but it never happened.

Notwithstanding his lack of a Church-sanctioned halo, Thomas continued to be revered locally at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His relics were believed to hold specific healing properties — his belt helped women in labour, his hat cured migraines — and a hymn called the Lancaster Suffrage was included as part of the daily prayers in the psalters and Books of Hours of wealthy Lancastrians. Here’s the one from Manuscript 13 (ca. 1330) in the Bridewell Library at Southern Methodist University:

Antiphon: Oh Thomas, Earl of Lancaster,
Jewel and flower of knighthood,
Who in the name of God,
For the sake of the state of England,
Offered yourself to be killed.
Versicle: Pray for us, soldier of Christ.
Response: Who never held the poor worthless.
Collect: Almighty everlasting God, you who wished to honor your holy soldier Thomas of Lancaster through the lamentable palm of the martyr for the peace and state of England just as he is lead through the sacrament for God’s own exceeding glory [and] through your holy miracles. Bestow, we pray, that you grant all faithful venerating him a good journey and life eternal. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

For people who could not afford to have French illuminators make them their own personal prayer books, devotional panels provided a less expensive entre into the private veneration of St. Thomas. Although they were very popular in the 14th century, few of these panels have survived. The British Museum has two examples, one smaller and one larger, neither of them are in great condition. The figures on the smaller piece are crudely designed and while the larger panel has an elaborate Gothic cathedral-like structure and more people in it than the MOLA panel, they aren’t as finely crafted and the piece is fragmented. You can see in the picture that it’s being held together with wires.

The MOLA piece is five inches high and 3.5 inches wide and divided into four scenes that are to be read clockwise from the top left. In scene one, Thomas is captured. The caption in French reads “Here I am taken prisoner.” In scene two he is put on trial. The caption reads “I am judged.” In scene three he is convicted and conveyed by horse (the quality, or lack thereof, of this horse was a big issue in some of the chronicles) to the site of execution. The caption: “I am under threat.” In the last scene Thomas is beheaded by sword. The caption states simply: “la mort” (death). These shenanigans are presided over by Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, perched atop the sun and moon, waiting to welcome Lancaster’s saintly soul to heaven.

This is the only Lancaster devotional panel known to have French labels explaining each scene. It’s also the only one known with surviving gilding which highlights the sun and moon.

Up until now the panel has only been known by Museum of London experts, but the riverbank excavation, including detailed information about the panel, has just been published (Roman and Medieval Revetments on the Thames Waterfront) so the museum is putting the panel on display for the first time. The exhibition in the museum’s Medieval Galleries will run from March 28th to September 28th of this year.

Share

Neanderthals made jewelry from eagle talons 130,000 years ago

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

A set of white-tailed eagle talons recovered from the 130,000-year-old Krapina Neanderthal site in Croatia have multiple cut marks, notches and polished facets that indicate the talons were once mounted in a piece of jewelry. Individual talons thought to have been used as pendants have been found at Neanderthal sites before, but this group of eight talons collected from at least three eagles was used for a more elaborate ornament that likely held symbolic meaning. Crafted early in the Middle Paleolithic era long before anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe about 45,000 years ago, the talons are evidence that Neanderthals created complex ornaments with symbolic significance independently of any later interactions with Homo sapiens sapiens.

The eight talons and one pedal phalanx (the toe bone associated with one of the talons) were found in the same level of a rock shelter on Hušnjak hill, near the Croatian town of Krapina, that was excavated by Croatian paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger from 1899 to 1905. They were in the uppermost level which Gorjanović-Kramberger called the “Ursus spelaeus zone” because of its many cave bear bones. Although most of the Neanderthal bones were found more than halfway down site (level 4 on the diagram, labeled “Homo sapiens” because when it was drawn they hadn’t figured out yet that the bones belonged to another species of human), stone tools and one hearth were also found on the bear level confirming its use by Neanderthals. The entire site from top to bottom has a relatively short date span of about 10,000 years.

Only the cliff face is left today, but Gorjanović-Kramberger extensively documented and published the site and its contents — hundreds of Neanderthal bones and teeth, 2800 faunal remains, more than 800 stone tools — have been preserved at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb where he was head of the Geological-Paleontological Department. Davorka Radovcic was reviewing the Natural History Museum’s Krapina Neanderthal collection in late 2013 after she was appointed its curator when she noticed the cut marks on the phalanx bone from the eagle talon set. Radovcic realized that the marks were made by humans. An international study of the talons ensued, the results of which were published earlier this month in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study examined each bone in microscopic detail and found that four of the talons and the phalanx have multiple cut marks whose edges have been smoothed, eight talons have been polished and/or abraded and three have notches in approximately the same area. Those smooth edges are how we know the cuts weren’t the result of butchering. Other fauna in the rock shelter bears the sharp cut marks of the butchering process and none of them have smoothed edges. This was done deliberately, probably by wrapping the talon in a fiber of some kind. The shiny polished areas look like what happens when bone rubs against bone. The research team believes these are the tell-tale signs of the claws having been mounted in a necklace or bracelet.

At Krapina, cut marks on the pedal phalanx and talons are not related to feather removal or subsistence, so these must be the result of severing tendons for talon acquisition. Further evidence for combining these in jewelry is edge smoothing of the cut marks, the small polished facets, medial/lateral sheen and nicks on some specimens. All are a likely manifestation of the separating the bones from the foot and the attachment of the talons to a string or sinew. Cut marks on many aspects, but not the plantar surfaces, illustrate the numerous approaches the Neandertals had for severing the bones and mounting them into a piece of jewelry.

As in ethnohistoric-present societies, the Neandertals’ practice of catching eagles very likely involved planning and ceremony. We cannot know the way they were captured, but if collected from carcasses it must have taken keen eyes to locate the dead birds as rare as they were in the prehistoric avifauna. We suspect that the collection of talons from at least three different white-tailed eagles mitigates against recovering carcasses in the field, but more likely represents evidence for live capture. In any case, these talons provide multiple new lines of evidence for Neandertals’ abilities and cultural sophistication. They are the earliest evidence for jewelry in the European fossil record and demonstrate that Neandertals possessed a symbolic culture long before more modern human forms arrived in Europe.

Share

Rubens’ Three Magi reunited after 130 years

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Individual portraits of the Three Wise Men painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1618 are back together for the first time in 130 years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The three works, uniquely intimate bust views of the Biblical personages, are normally separated by many miles and one large ocean. Melchior, also known as the Assyrian King, is part of the permanent collection of the NGA while Gaspar, also known as the Oldest King, belongs to the Museo de Arte de Ponce near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Balthasar, the Moorish or Young King, is owned by the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. Melchior cannot leave the NGA by the terms of a bequest, so this is a unique opportunity to see all three of the original paintings together.

Rubens created the Three Magi on commission from Antwerp printing magnate Balthasar I Moretus after having painted the Adoration of the Magi the year before for the Church of St. John in Mechelen. Indeed there are marked similarities in the depictions of the Three Kings in the Adoration and in the ones he made for Moretus, but the individual portraits take a much more personal approach, starting with the fact that they’re in separate paintings at all when they whole point of them in terms of Christian iconography is for them to be together. There’s a reason for this.

Balthasar Moretus was head of the Officina Plantiniana (Plantin Press), a printing company founded by his grandfather Christophe Plantin which was the largest publisher in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. He had been close friends with Rubens since they were schoolkids and once he and his brother became heads of the company after their father’s death in 1610, Moretus regularly commissioned Rubens to make illustrations and title pages for Officina publications. He also commissioned 19 portraits of friends and family including ones of his deceased father and grandfather.

The Three Magi were an extension of those family portraits. Balthasar’s father Jan I Moretus had started at Plantin Press as an assistant when he was 15 years old and worked his way up the ladder to become Christophe Plantin’s indispensable right hand man. After his marriage to Plantin’s second daughter Martina, who ran a successful lace and linen business of her own, he became Plantin’s son-in-law and presumptive successor too. In a letter to his father, Jan explained that Moretus was the Latinized version of his last name Moerentorf and that he had chosen it as a reference to “Morus,” the Moorish king who was one of the Three Magi. He placed the king and the Star of Bethlehem on his insignia along with the motto “ratione recta” (“right reason”) because he held the star to be a symbol of reason.

He carried that theme into the family nomenclature when he and Martina named three of their 10 children after the Magi. Balthasar, obviously, was one of the three. When he became head of the Platin Press he took a page out of his father’s book, no pun intended, put the Star of Bethlehem into the company’s golden compass printer’s device and adopted the motto “stella duce” (“with the star as guide”). The Three Magi Rubens painted for him, therefore, were avatars of the brothers, the family and its vocation on top of their religious meaning.

Many of the portraits Rubens painted for the publishing dynasty still hang on the wall of the main gallery of Plantin-Moretus Museum, a museum dedicated to the Plantin Press and Plantin-Moretus families that is located in the Renaissance-style palace that housed both the family and the business from the 16th century through the late 19th. The lavishly decorated building and its extraordinary contents — Flemish Baroque Old Master paintings, rare books, the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world (from around 1600), complete sets of punches, dies, matrices, type in multiple languages and an almost unbroken archive of the Plantin Press business records from 1555 to 1876 — are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The Moretus family thankfully kept most everything that crossed the transom and, after Balthasar I expanded the house and annexed the printing shop to it, made few changes to the property until Edward Moretus sold the company to the city of Antwerp in 1876. Within a year it was a museum for the public to enjoy the gorgeousness of the home (never mind the priceless art on the wall, the woodwork is INSANE) and the utilitarian beauty of the printing offices. The Three Magi were long gone by then, however. The family had sold the Three Kings to Graaf Van de Werve de Vosselaer of Antwerp in 1781. They were still together until they were dispersed at the Paris auction of the John William Wilson collection in 1881.

The old king (Gaspar) and the middle-aged king (Melchior) went to the United States. Gaspar returned to Europe in 1962 where it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London. The Museo de Arte de Ponce was the buyer. Melchior was donated to the National Gallery of Art in 1943 by collector Chester Dale who bequeathed almost his entire art collection to the museum in 1962. Balthasar had a more troubling road. Somehow he found his way into the collection Hermann Goering amassed from the confiscation, coercive sale and outright theft of Jewish property and looting of occupied territories during the war. After that ugly spell, Balthasar became part of a private collection in Brussels before eventually being reacquired by the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

The Three Kings will be together again at the National Gallery of Art from March 17th through July 5th, 2015.

Share

Bedlam burial ground dig to unearth 3,000 bodies

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

The construction of the high-speed Crossrail train line in London has generated the UK’s largest archaeological project. So far more than 10,000 artifacts spanning 55 million years of history have been unearthed at more than 40 worksites over 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the city. This week, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeaology (MOLA) began to excavate the burial ground of Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam, next to the Liverpool Street railway station. While the hospital building began life as a priory in 1247, it was seized by the crown in the 1370s and by the early 1400s was detached from its religious roots and administered by the City of London as a hospital for the mentally ill.

This burial ground, known as the New Churchyard, was built in 1569 and was in use until at least 1738, spanning some prime years for death in London: the English Civil War, the Great Plague of 1665 (and three other major outbreaks of Bubonic plague) and the Great Fire of 1666. Unaffiliated with any parish church, it was London’s first municipal burial ground. When the hospital itself moved to a new facility in Moorfields in 1676, the New Churchyard continued to be used as an overflow cemetery during mass death events, by people who could not afford or did not want (for religious or political reasons) a church burial.

A single trial pit dug in 2011 found more than 100 skeletons, and preliminary surveys in 2013 and 2014 found more than 400. Archaeologists predict there are at least 3,000 individuals buried on this site and they plan to unearth them all over the next few weeks. The excavation is going on while the eastern entrance of the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station is being built, so surrounded with the noise and vibration of heavy construction, the MOLA team of 60 archaeologists will work in two shifts six days a week to dig through layer upon layer of skeletal remains. Right now they’ve dug down about a meter into the topmost layer and they’re finding individual burials were stacked on top of previous ones. When the wooden coffins decayed, the human remains pancaked downwards. Separating these bones pressed into each other over centuries is an arduous task, and they haven’t even gotten to the plague pits and mass graves in the lower layers.

The skeletons will be excavated over the next four weeks. The remains will be moved the MOLA laboratory for osteological examination and tests that will hopefully determine diet, work, demographics, geographic origin, sex, medical history and more of the thousands of people interred at Bedlam. Archaeologists hope that tests on plague victims will provide a new understanding of how the plague pathogen moved through the early modern population.

Jay Carver, Crossrail Lead Archaeologist said: “This excavation presents a unique opportunity to understand the lives and deaths of 16th and 17th century Londoners. The Bedlam burial ground spans a fascinating phase of London’s history, including the transition from the Tudor-period City into cosmopolitan early-modern London. This is probably the first time a sample of this size from this time period has been available for archaeologists to study in London. The Bedlam burial ground was used by a hugely diverse population from right across the social spectrum and from different areas of the City.”

Identification of any of the remains is unlikely, to dramatically understate the case. Since the Bedlam burial ground didn’t keep its own records of who was buried there, 16 volunteers enlisted to scour the records of parish churches who made a note when parishioners were buried at “Bedlam” or “New Churchyard.” Archaeologists also appealed to the public for any family records, lore or anecdotes that might illuminate the history of the cemetery.

Here’s a video of researchers digging through the church registers at the London Metropolitan Archives. Keep your eye open for the “New Churchyard” annotations on the records.

When that video was shot, Jay Carver said they expected to find about 1,000 relevant burial records which would be used to help interpret the archaeological data from the dig and be compiled in a single database and made available to the public for genealogical or other research. Well, they left that already lofty goal in the dust. The final tally of names and histories of individuals buried at Bedlam cemetery was more than 5,000, an incredible accomplishment that testifies loudly to the dedication of the volunteers and the phenomenal record-keeping of 16th and 17th century churches and the London Metropolitan Archives.

According to the research Dr John Lamb (also known as Lam or Lambe), an astrologer and advisor to the First Duke of Buckingham, is among those buried at the site. Lamb was said to have been stoned to death by an angry mob outside a theatre in 1628 following allegations of rape and black magic. Others identified in the research include victims of riots by ‘Fanatiques,’ noted in the diaries of Samuel Pepys in January 1661.

Plague was the most common listed form of death, followed by infant mortality and consumption. The burial ground was established in 1569 to help parishes cope with overcrowding during outbreaks of plague and other epidemics. Crossrail workers recently discovered the gravestone of Mary Godfree who died in September 1665, as a result of the ‘Great Plague’ which peaked that year.

The Bedlam Burial Ground Register can be searched on the Crossrail website.

Once the skeletons are fully excavated, the MOLA team will continue to dig down through the medieval marsh and lost Walbrook River to the Roman layer. Tunnelers installing utility cables 20 feet below the surface in 2013 encountered Roman artifacts and human remains. The Liverpool Street excavation is scheduled to finish in September after which construction on the station will begin on the site. The human remains will be reburied after they are studied.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

May 2015
S M T W T F S
« Apr    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication